Eastern State Penitentiary is not really a prison
any more. It was built in the early part of the 19th
century and was designed on very different principles
than the prisons you have seen in the movies and
the media (or directly). The general layout was
based on Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, but instead of
every cell being constantly observed from a central
point, only the hallways of the long, low buildings
which contained the cells were centrally observable.
There was not much concern for watching the prisoners
because they were supposed to pass almost all their
time in what we would call solitary confinement,
as an aid to their repentance -- the prison was,
after all, literally supposed to be a pentitentiary,
a place of penitence and reformation.
The only light entering the cells came from narrow
windows above, four by 40 inches. In the time before
gas and electrical lighting, they must have been
just about the only light the prisoners saw, except
for an occasional watchman's lantern. The narrow
windows, which prevented escape, also aptly echoed the
constraint the prisoners must have felt in the narrow
cells. The only things outside the cells a prisoner
insiade could see were the sky, the sun, the moon,
clouds, and perhaps a few passing birds. In a way,
probably deliberately, the cells are curiously like
the cells in a monastery. It was these narrow
windows, and some others positioned vertically,
into which Schaechter installed her works.
This arrangement was supposed to be more humane than
previous methods of imprisonment and punishment.
The actual prison buildings were surrounded by a
high stone wall with faux-medieval towers which were
more to impress and warn outsiders than to keep the
Over the years the theories of prison management
changed; general solitary-confinement methods
were abandoned, more buildings were added to the
complex, new kinds of structures, like a greenhouse,
a chapel, a synagogue, and an infirmary were built,
and some more traditionally prisonish superstructures,
like watchtowers, were added. Then, in 1971, the
penitentiary, already obsolete and in poor repair,
was vacated and began to fall apart in earnest.
It quickly became an overgrown ruin, used mostly by
colonies of feral cats. Subsequently, it came to
be understood that the site was important
at least historically; the trees were cleared away,
some of the decay was stopped, and it is now what
one might call an arrested or suspended ruin. It has
been turned into a kind of archaeological site, not
from the ancient world but from an earlier phase of
our modern era. Enough is done to keep the interior
from decaying further, but no attempt has been made
to restore the buildings generally or pretty them up.
One of the uses to which the penitentiary has been
put has been the siting of artistic installations,
especially those which reflect or reflect upon prison,
after all an enormous fact of our national life.
Judith Schaechter was one of those who got an
opportunity to construct one of the installations.
But as a Philadelphian, Schaechter was already aware
of the Penitentiary and had already thought that it
would be an ideal place for the kind of work she does.
Traditionally, stained glass has been the province
of religious institutions and occasionally has been
employed as decor in the mansions of the wealthy or in
large public institutional structures. 
Schaechter's work, however, goes in another direction.
It is resolutely secular
and personal. In the case of the installations
at the Penitentiary
generally persons taken out of mythology
and legend are depicted: Andromeda, Prometheus, Mary Magdalene,
Atlas, and Noah in one area and Icarus in another.
These are more like examples than symbols. She also
installed three windows depicting those who suffer
when others are imprisoned: the Mother, the Sister,
and the Daughter, and finally a large window with
over 96 characters, 'The Battle of Carnival and Lent',
depicting the struggle between impulse and restraint,
or between Energy and Reason as William Blake might
have put it.
Throughout most of the 20th century, modern, or at
least Modernist, art was suppose to take place on
stretched canvas or on other traditional media; or
at least, this is what the big names did. That restriction
began to break down in the 1960s and '70s, as popcult
with its multifarious and irreverent ways invaded high art, and artists
explored a great variety of materials and methods,
some of them recently invented, others ancient.
What was old became new again.
The resurrection of stained glass was one of these
new-old developments. Especially when installed
so that it filters ever-changing external daylight,
it has qualities of natural luminosity, reflectance
and vitality which no other material can claim.
It is, however, obviously difficult to work with,
especially when one wants to provide close detail.
In this area, one approach has been to paint the glass
with translucent materials, but Schaechter generally
goes another and better route: she uses something
called 'flash glass' where only a thin layer of the
glass is colored, and thus can be etched away to provide
different tones and shadings. Also, she often assembles a
work out of more than one layer of glass, making a
variety of colors possible. Unlike painted glass,
the coloring and shading of etched and layered glass
is virtually eternal.
(Glass is not Schaechter's only medium, but it is
mainly what she has been doing for the last 30
The complexity of execution does not distract this
artist from constructing work with important formal,
emotional, and spiritual characteristics. Indeed,
her work has been sometimes criticized as 'morbid'
or 'depressing' by those who would prefer art, or
at least stained glass, to be pretty. Schaechter's
work is more serious than that.
Indeed, to some extent, Schaechter says in one of
her commentaries on her work, the people who were
in the prison were one of her imagined audiences.
Hence, for instance, the repeated appearance of birds in the works
that compose this installation; they would have been
the only forms of life the earlier prisoners
would have been able to see through the narrow
windows, as well as being an essential element in
some of the stories.
(The idea that the world of man is a prison, or that we are
all in a kind of prison if any of us are, is not
all that far-fetched, of course.)
The first window completed was that depicting
Andromeda. Andromeda, in classical Greek mythology,
was the daughter of Cassiopeia, who boasted that
both she and her daughter were more beautiful than
the Nereids, sea spirits who were often the companions
of the sea god Poseidon. In retribution, Poseidon
began to destroy Cassiopeia's country. An oracle told
Cassiopeia that the country could only be saved if
she sacrificed her daughter to the sea monster Cetus.
Andromeda was duly chained to a seaside rock to await her
fate. Fortunately, her fate turned out to be the
legendary hero Perseus, who killed Cetus, rescued
Andromeda, and married her. Later, Athena placed
her in the heavens as the constellation Andromeda,
which turned out by chance to include the
galaxy of the same name invisible to the ancients,
but which on closer view was seen to be another 'island universe'
like our own Milky Way, leading us on to previously
unimaginable spaces. Thus has Andromeda suggested innumerable
astronomical and science-fiction adventures. (Although Andromeda is
a passive character in the classical story, her name
means 'Ruler of Men', implying that the story may have
been rewritten in antiquity for political or religious
reasons. In any case her name seems to have come true.)
Needless to say, an exciting story like this,
including a young, beautiful naked woman chained
to a rock, and possibly a noble hero and a monster,
appealed greatly to artists then and subsequently,
if only as an irresistible excuse to paint a shapely nude in
various contorted postures. Not all the works
were so superficial: Joseph Cornell compounded the
mythological with the astronomical and the surreal
in 'Hotel Andromeda'; and
went beyond ogling
to depict the suffering and terror of the victim.
Schaechter's Andromeda belongs to this latter class.
Sweat, tears, or possibly the seawater kicked up by
an approaching monster run down her anguished face.
We also see the starry sky of her future in the
background; her chain rather reminds me of the chain
in Joseph Cornell's depictions.
Prometheus is in a nearby cell. He brought
or restored fire to mankind against the will of
the gods, and was punished by being chained to
a rock and having his liver torn out daily by
a divine eagle. (Since Prometheus was an
immortal titan, it grew back to be torn out
again. You will be glad to know Prometheus was
eventually rescued by Hercules.)
Promethus has been a favorite of those who
admire defiance of authority, or at least those
instances of it which are sufficiently far away
and long ago. Schachter's Prometheus is not the
noble fellow you will see in a lot of painting; he
is another prisoner, another sufferer, and shows
it, burned by the fire which he carries, and
threatened by the attack of the immortal eagle.
His is the anxiety-laden look of the point man:
indeed, his name means 'Forethinker'.
Atlas is nearby. A titan like Prometheus, he
was condemned by the gods to hold up the sky
forever. Since the sky was envisioned by the
ancients as a sphere, the image was often taken
to be the Earth instead. He is the prisoner of
the heavy burden, astral and terrestrial, that
he carries forever.
Noah is here, not the zookeeper of religious
children's stories but the anguished prisoner of
the Ark, the Flood, and his own human failings.
Finally, there is Mary Magdalene. Her particularly
striking window shows her as a prisoner stretched
out prone and naked, on a mattress in a prison cell;
behind her is a barred window (a window within
a window). The shadows of the bars lie across her
naked back like the stripes of a lash. The stories
and traditions surrounding Magdalene are complex
and contradictory. In many, she was said to have
been an eventually reformed prostitute; and so, the
'Magdalen Society of Philadelphia', founded a few
years before the Eastern State Penitentiary, as an
institution to rescue and sustain 'fallen women',
that is, prostitutes, from the streets and, of course,
the prisons, punished for the guilt of others.
Another section of the installation, named
'Flight Risk', featured Icarus, who was given wings
by his engineer father, and flew fatally close to
the sun. This window was made by putting an engraving
of a man on red flash glass and an engraving of a
bird on blue glass together. They were then cut into
strips to fit the format of the long, thin apertures.
The name 'Flight Risk', refers not only to the risks
of flying but to law-enforcement terminology with
which the prisoners of yesteryear would have been
all too familiar.
The imprisoned, in formal prisons, anyway, have
usually been men; often forgotten are those whom
they leave behind in personal prisons of their
own when their male family members are locked up.
Schaechter shows three of these: a grieving child,
sister, and mother.
One critic remarked of 'Sister' that her diaphanous
nightdress and underlying nudity implied an unsisterly
relationship, but I felt that the implication was one
of vulnerability, not erotic attraction. If there is
an erotic element, it is not the free and joyous kind,
but the kind of the goes on the block to pay a price.
Finally, there is the great
on the similarly-titled painting of Pieter Bruegel.
The window contains almost a hundred characters
and has to be studied closely and at length.
Like Bruegel's picture, it depicts a struggle between
excess and restraint, but it is not particularly keyed
to the Bruegel version or to some other assemblage
of characters like popular culture or the myths and
legends of antiquity. Instead, each element needs
to be taken on its own and dropped into your intuitive
mind soup. Fortunately, you need not be standing in
Eastern State Pentitiary last Novermber or a future
art gallery or museum to do this;
the image currently available on
permits the required enlargement and close inspection.
I've omitted mentioning a set of accompanying smaller
by Schaechter, which appear
on their own accompanying some of the larger windows,
and in the background of others, sometimes squarely
to the eye, sometimes in perspective, and run through
much of her other work. These are intricate, abstract,
usually highly symmetrical figures which deserve an
essay of their own.
Although the Eastern State Pentitentiary installation
has been dismantled and will presumably not return
there, the windows are scheduled to be shown in
Claire Oliver Gallery.
Most will be in light boxes,
but some effort will be made to present at least a
few of the windows in a simulation of their dark,
decayed prison enviroment. The date may change;
it will be advisable to check with the gallery.
Besides the gallery, a
is available and there is
Take a look. This work is something you won't forget.
1. For example,
Robert Sowers's work at the American Airlines Terminal
at Kennedy Airport in New York City. One might also mention
Gerhard Richter's randomly-colored window at
the Cathedral of Cologne, which makes, it seems, yet one more
effort to create meaning out of the rejection of
meaning where meaning is expected, a well which may
be running rather dry these days.